Since taking over one week ago as the new executive of the most important local government agency most people never heard of — the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG) — Marjorie Kirn has been meeting and greeting with a vengeance. “One of the things I heard is there’s a need to improve relationships,” said Kirn, who spent the past 24 years working for the Merced County Association of Governments, the last four as the chief executive.
SBCAG dispenses millions of dollars a year in state and federal road construction repair money to all local governments. It funds the freeway-widening project and efforts to expand commuter rail services, and bankrolls area bus systems and alternative transit options. Any of these objectives are challenging enough even with harmonious relations. With bad blood, they’re considerably harder.
When Kirn left her previous gig, Merced County residents just approved a sales-tax hike to fund $450 million in road and transit improvements over the next 30 years. Even though two mayors actively campaigned against the tax, the measure passed with 71 percent of the vote. Kirn structured the measure so that 50 percent of the revenues went to local governments.
Kirn takes over an agency struggling to secure the funds needed to widen the freeway from Carpinteria to downtown Santa Barbara. She also inherits a legal controversy whether the environmental analysis conducted for the freeway widening adequately reflected its impacts, mitigations, and alternatives. When the freeway widening was first proposed and funding for it approved — in the form of Measure A — commuter rail service was promised along with the added freeway lanes.
While considerable progress has been made to widen the freeway, the commuter rail option has proved more elusive. “The train is a major priority to me,” Kirn said. “I want to see that happen.”